If you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart, but if you are a socialist at 40 you have no brain. That old French aphorism describes better than more learned tomes the appeal and the reality of more than a hundred years of seeking to find the ideal society through either Christian socialism based on appeal to the Scriptures or “scientific” socialism based on Karl Marx’s writings.
It’s not clear when Sen. Bernie Sanders espouses “democratic socialism” he knows this long tortured history or is ignoring the fulminations of European socialism including its American versions. Most Americans are unaware that socialism had a thrust toward power in the early part of the 20th century when Eugene V. Debs, a trade union radical and his colleagues traded on social problems of the rapid U.S. industrialization. Even though Pres. Woodrow Wilson, “a progressive”, sent Debs to prison for his ironclad pacifism and opposition to American entry into World War I, he garnered more than a million votes in the 1920 presidential election.
But the socialists faded, shorn of their Communist radicals who bolted the party, in the enormous prosperity of the 1920s. They left one important addition to the national scene, the income tax, which could only be implemented with the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution which was deemed to have excluded all such direct taxes. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, much of the socialist rhetoric [along with proto-fascist ideas as well] were adopted in the wildly heterogenic New Deal of Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Norman Thomas, a former pastor from the Christian socialist tradition — a tall, handsome man, a splendid orator with a booming voice — took over the rump of the movement. Thomas, although a respected figure to whom thousands of European and Asian refugees came with notes of introduction during the turbulent 30s, was a failure as a politician. The Party dwindled under a series of crises; the first in 1936 when most oldtime socialists supported FDR against Thomas for the presidency. Thomas also followed the Europeans in their Popular Front, a partnership with the Communists aimed at halting the rise of Adolph Hitler’s Nazis and Benito Mussolini Italian Fascists. The anti-Communist socialist splinter, mostly New York Jews, broke away taking the famous old Rand School which had educated immigrants and a Borsch Belt resort. But here and here old memories remained: a Young People’s Socialist League on the University of Missouri campus in 1946 formed to end racial segregation on their campus.
Although the Party continued in name, maintaining a New York headquarters and continuing to publish a weekly version of its once powerful The Call, it played no role in U.S. politics. It was not until post-World War II when some old stragglers from the movement successfully persuaded Washington to wean the West European parties away from neutralism against the high tide of Communism in France, Italy and West Germany. On the Continent as in the British Labor Party, the European socialists came to brook no rival in their opposition to Moscow where the Communists had developed a totalitarian state, ready in the postwar period as one of the victors to absorb most of Central Europe.
Although the socialists blossomed in power in Scandinavia – in Sweden building a highly sophisticated industrial base, not least by collaborating with Hitler in WWII as an ostensible neutral – increasing social and political problems of their own making have undermined their hold on power. Mistaken references in the American debate to Denmark ignore its steady move away from socialism today.
Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist”, presumably in the Thomas and European anti-Communist traditions. But in Israel he chose to live for two years among kibutzim [members of communal settlements] with ties to Moscow. His flirtation with the Castros’ Cuba and their allegiance to the Soviet Union until its demise as well as the pro-Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua puts the question what he really believes. Like so many other self-proclaimed socialists before him – currently it is the case in Venezuela –in power they have had to choose backtracking toward more conventional positions or trying to institute “socialism” with dictatorial regimes.
Just where is Sen. Sanders?